I find it difficult to accept the notion that Bob Dylan may actually be a human being. With his legend and influence looming so large, and his persona so aloof, it has become near-impossible to picture America’s most revered songwriter eating, sleeping, showering, holding conversations, going for a walk, going to the gym, pumping gas, flushing the toilet, fixing a light bulb, clipping his nails, stubbing his toe, browsing the internet, having sex, ordering pizza, checking ingredients, watching infomercials, calling customer support, separating the recyclables from the trash, spilling ketchup on his pants, fishing a cigarette butt out of the ashtray, or generally partaking in any human activity.
I mean: did you see him getting his Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House? While President Obama listed the Great Poet’s accomplishments, there sat Dylan, frozen and unsmiling, his eyes obscured by enormous sunglasses, his body small and shriveled. Once, in 2009, I saw him in concert in Hamilton, Ontario, where he wore an enormous cowboy hat, stood behind his keyboard, and never once changed his position or acknowledged the audience. Somehow, that seemed right. In my imagination, Dylan spends his time between concerts in a deep, dreamless sleep, briefly waking from time to time to deliver another cryptic aphorism.
In 2009, the Dylan Mystique grew only more perplexing with Christmas in the Heart, the Voice of a Generation’s peculiar contribution to music’s tackiest genre. Upon its release, most Dylanologists greeted “the Bob Dylan Christmas Album” as a forgettable lark at best, an embarrassment at worst, and its lukewarm reception was certainly understandable. From its greeting-card cover to its one-take tracks to its spectacularly unimaginative roundup of yuletide perennials, everything about Christmas in the Heart is ostentatiously half-assed. And, for this reason, I believe it offers our most sustained and affecting glimpse into Dylan’s heart and soul.
But first, let’s consider the album’s sensual pleasures. In recent years, Dylan has been savvy at finding songs that fit his voice’s narrow range. With Christmas in the Heart, he throws caution to the wind: each track becomes a Quixotic battle between the artist and notes, with Dylan swallowing syllables at every turn as he brutally exhales each beat of “With… Angelic… Voice… Pro… Claim…!” Gentle piano trilling is interrupted by a sharp growl of “Aaaaaiill be hooooome fer Christmaaaas,” delivered as if the singer had just run a marathon. Every now and then, the weary entertainer musters the strength to screech a passage like “HARK, the HEEEH-rahld AIN-jehls SING!” with full “How does it feeeeeeeel…?” gusto, before collapsing into a vocal puddle of slurred-words and phlegm.
In arguably the album’s defining moment, Dylan makes the brave, downright foolhardly decision to tackle “Adeste Fideles” in the original Latin. “Naaa-toom vi-DEEEhn-tay! Ray-gum ang-gal aaauroom!” croaks our man, his voice wavering as a back-up chorus of angelic voices periodically chimes in with tasteful humming.
For Dylan, Christmas in the Heart arrived at the end of a banner decade. As Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times made a case for his present-day relevance, Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, and Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Volume One (and, to a much, much lesser extent, Larry Charles’ Masked and Anonymous) reaffirmed his legacy as the twentieth century’s zeitgeistiest poet. Is there any more revered popular artist in America? How many other artists could successfully reposition multiple plagiarism charges as a further manifestation of his creative genius? If, somewhere beneath Bob Dylan’s sunglasses, cowboy hats and Cesar Romero moustaches, there is actually a human being, then the man who grew tired of being “the voice of a generation” long before he “went electric” must sometimes feel restless.
So yes, the obvious interpretation is that Christmas in the Heart is simply another bomb thrown by Dylan at his oppressively weighty reputation. But somehow, this doesn’t fully encapsulate the range of emotions the album inspires. To the extent that any Bob Dylan Christmas album can be considered un-ironic, Christmas in the Heart is refreshingly earnest. Only once, when he and his band insert the names of former presidents in place of Santa’s reindeer in “Must Be Santa,” does Dylan overtly kid the material. Instead, the poet opts to invest each song with all the Christmas spirit he can frail voice can muster.
My appreciation for Christmas in the Heart deepened when I bought the CD as a present for my parents, a pair of enthusiastic Christmas album collectors. Over Christmas dinner, as I was pontificating on the exquisite awfulness of “Adeste Fideles,” I noticed that my dear mother was listening intently to the album, moved almost to tears by Dylan’s warbling.
“We spend so much of the holidays running around, buying presents, decorating the house, trying to make it from one grandparent’s house to another so that nobody feels offended, and on and on,” she said. “The whole thing can be so exhausting it saps the joy out of everything. And that’s not what Christmas is about. It’s not about being perfect.”
“Look at this stupid cover,” she said, pointing to the disc. “What is that, clipart? And listen to these awful songs. This man isn’t stupid. This is a man who’s devoted his entire life to music. He knows how ridiculous this whole thing sounds.”
She continued: “What he’s saying is that Christmas shouldn’t be about that. It shouldn’t be about buying things, or holding parties, or getting every little thing right, or any of other damn thing people make it about. Christmas should be about being around those you love, and having a good time, and being happy. That’s the true meaning of Christmas.”
And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say that my small heart grew three sizes that day. This holiday season, why not open yourself to one of Dylan’s finest achievements and let it do the same to yours. And, as you soak in his melodies over a pint of eggnog, take comfort in the Great Man’s pledge: “Nextyearall…. Arr TRUB-bles will be farAwaaaay…”